No two words fill a child with greater anticipation and joy than “Let’s play!” Play allows children to imagine and explore, and the process of exploration through trial and error allows them to learn and grow. When we play, neurotransmitters that relate to learning, memory, and joy are released in the brain, thus shaping the brain in positive ways that change our brain chemistry forever (1). Play is vital to your child’s development, and it is also vital to your relationship with your child as it is a key element to building healthy attachment. Thankfully, even if your household has lost the art of play, it’s not too late to start again!
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
To the untrained eye, play is nothing more than carefree fun, but all that laughter, make-believe, and roughhousing is not only fun but fundamental to a child’s development and growth. Because play contributes to the cognitive, physical, neurological, social, and emotional well-being of a child, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has even recognized play as a right of every child (2). Through play, children learn how to share, get along with others, express their thoughts and feelings, resolve conflicts, make decisions, problem-solve, and more! Regardless of whether or not these skills come naturally to the child at first, play enables a child to learn them over time (2).
One of the most important parts about play is that play disarms fear. Dr. Karyn Purvis often taught that play is a sign of a healthy child. Play deprivation may be due to past or current neglect, abuse, illness, or other trauma, and children who are not given the opportunity to play will often struggle as they get older to read social cues and relate and interact with other people (1). Play deprivation is often a sign that a child has had to grow up too fast due to hard life circumstances. On the other hand, when a child is able to play again, the brain signals to the body, “I am safe,” deactivating and disarming the fear system. When the fear system is disarmed, new bonds can be formed, helping a child heal unhealthy attachment. So, not only does play build social skills and connectedness, but it also disarms fear and helps children to heal from their past. Play is powerful!
HOW DO I PLAY?
Play is so important, but to a parent or caregiver that play doesn’t come naturally to, it may feel overwhelming to step into a playful mindset. Or, maybe you adopted an older child, and they seem “too cool” to play; what do you do then? No matter what your situation looks like, rest assured you are not alone.
Playing will look different for every family and every child in every season of life. For younger kids, there may be more make-believe, whereas with older kids, playing together may look like listening to their favorite music or playing their favorite card game. Play doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s just about being together, being present, and engaging with your child (1).
Even if you never played basketball, or you don’t enjoy your child’s favorite video game, being a parent is all about learning to love the things you dislike simply because your kids love them (3). Learning to do the things they love alongside them will not only open up opportunities to connect, but through that connection, greater trust will develop between the two of you. So, whether you are playing peek-a-boo with an infant, pretending to have an imaginary tea party with a young child, or simply spending time with your older kids, keep playing because “the family that plays together stays together” (1).
START PLAYING TODAY
Research has proven the importance of play! Unfortunately, in today’s busy world, many families are forgetting what it looks like to truly engage and play together. So, here are some tools to help you start playing again today!
One way to make your life more playful is by simply coating everything you do with playful engagement! That means making every interaction that can be playful. Talk with them, interact with them, and even correct them in a playful mode. The key to play is focusing on playful engagement. Whenever you can make something playful, do. Connect through play, and when possible correct through play (1).
According to Dr. Lawrence Cohen, the author of Playful Parenting, authoritarian parenting styles and punishment with increased degrees of force are not effective methods long-term, even if they are partially effective in the short-term. If your child is motivated by fear, they may obey when they are younger, but they will most likely not want to have a relationship with you when they are older (3). So, instead of using power to correct your child, take the problem into the play zone whenever possible. Some examples of what that may look like include using silly words or catchy phrases such as “Let’s try that again with respect” or a playful tone of voice to get your child’s attention before you correct them.
15 Minutes Every Day
Prioritizing 15 minutes a day to play with your child can have a major impact on your bond with them. When you play together, ask them what they want to play that day, and then during that time together, let them be the leader while you follow (1). Depending on what your daily routine looks like right now, 15 minutes may feel impossible to incorporate into that day, but remember, this time is for much more than just playing together. Kids don’t know how to communicate to us when they are feeling lonely and want to play with us. Kids have big feelings, and they are in a vital stage of life where they are learning how to work through and express those feelings. So, if you can help your child learn how to express their feelings through play, that will often prevent other behaviors (3). In the words of Aha Parenting, “Five minutes of play on the front end will save you 30 minutes of meltdowns on the back end” (3).
Follow the Laughter
Learning to play with your child and learning the art of playful engagement are two similar but different skills. Because it can be challenging to learn and make playful engagement a second-nature parenting strategy, Kathy Gordon, a Certified Hand in Hand instructor advises that whatever you do, “follow the laughter” (4). Don’t pressure yourself to always be funny. Whether you’re giving them a piggyback ride or pretending you can’t find them hiding even when they are in plain sight, most kids will be grateful simply because you are playing with them. “You don’t have to be Jim Carey, but if you do make them laugh, that’s healing for them, so do whatever you did again” (4).
Play works to diffuse tension because laughter shifts children from the fight or flight mode that their brains enter under stress into a state where they can begin to reason and articulate (5). When you get on the level of your child and play alongside them, you join them on their journey toward healing and growth, and your connection with them will begin to grow as well.
You may think, I’m too busy for that or there’s too much to do around the house, but before you are quick to brush off the concept of playful parenting, remember the first tip about playful engagement. Try to incorporate play into things like cleaning up, bath time, or other daily routines. You may have to get creative on what that will look like for your family, but it is sure to be worth it in the end!
So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to start playing!
To learn more about how you can meet challenging moments with your child with playful interaction, enroll in the Families Are Forever course “FAF 201: The Importance of Playful Engagement”.